Canadian refugee limits leave little room for those affected by U.S. ban
On Saturday afternoon, as officials around the world scrambled to clarify the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump's ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the president's favourite method of communication to send a message.
"To those fleeing persecution, terror [and] war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength," Trudeau wrote on Twitter, following it up with a photo of him welcoming a Syrian refugee child. That message was retweeted 419,000 times and liked 749,000 times.
The tweet was effective in communicating Canada's openness to immigrants. But in practical terms, what is Canada doing to assist?
Refugee advocates say there's plenty more the country could be doing, particularly when it comes to private sponsorships.
"[Trudeau] continues to talk as if Canada is a welcoming beacon of hope to refugees everywhere... which is completely contradicted by the actual policies that his government is pursuing," said Stephen Watt, who volunteers with settlement agency Community Matters Toronto.
Canada's refugee target for 2017 is 25,000, broadly broken into three groups: 16,000 privately sponsored refugees, 7,500 government-assisted refugees, and 1,500 in a blended program that combines the two.
Within the private sponsorships, there are several ways to organize. Some sponsors are community organizations, but there's also an option for a group of five people to take on their own sponsorship.
In December, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced it was limiting the number of group-of-five sponsorship applications. CIC cut the number to 1,000 and hit the cap a month later. Watt says the initial announcement sent potential sponsors scrambling to get applications in before they reached the limit, and now they're scrambling to find alternate ways to bring people to Canada.
"The policy has taken away the ability of ordinary Canadians to help. It's completely removed the ability of volunteers and people who care to do anything about this crisis. It's very strange timing," Watt said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
"If I were the government, I would be so happy to have private citizens helping out and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and doing all the work of settling refugees."
'Very tight limits'
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said she has heard people discuss whether Canada could make up, at least in part, for the Americans cutting back on resettlement, and has even heard suggestions that many Americans opposed to the policy would be willing to contribute to the sponsorships.
"The fact is that it's not [financial] resources," she said. "There's just these very tight limits which are way below the will to sponsor."
With 45,000 private sponsorship applications in process at the end of 2016, Dench said, and a 16,000-person target for 2017, "obviously many of those people who are waiting at the end of 2016 are still going to be waiting at the end of 2017."
While the Canadian Council for Refugees is disappointed with the current target, she said, "We interpreted the prime minister's tweets as being a way of talking about the principles and general values, rather than being a policy position."
Dench and other advocates are also calling on the government to rescind an agreement with the U.S. that blocks refugees already in America from applying for refugee status in Canada. They argue the safe third country agreement, in place since 2004, shouldn't apply now that the U.S. is detaining refugees.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen suggested Sunday that he isn't planning a policy change to take into account the effect of the United States imposing a travel ban on millions of people, including Syrians and Iraqis.
The government is allowing temporary residency for those stranded in Canada because of Trump's executive order suspending entry for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
"There's an allocation for the number of refugees we plan to admit this year. Those numbers are historically very high -- higher than 2015 numbers and prior to that," Hussen said. "So we are doing our part as a country to meet our global obligations to refugees. We will continue that tradition and we will continue to make sure that we are open to those who are seeking sanctuary."
He repeated much the same answer on Monday after questions by NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan and Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel.
"The prime minister's weekend tweet did absolutely nothing to explain his decision to prevent privately sponsored refugees from being admitted to Canada this year," Rempel said in question period.
"So with over 45,000 PSR applications in the queue, why is the prime minister limiting the generosity of private sponsorship groups and shifting the responsibility solely to taxpayers?"
Hussen suggested the level was cut in a bid to deal with a backlog of applications.
"Wait times for refugees continued to balloon under the previous government. We intend to take action against that. Our immigration levels in 2017 create 16,000 allocations for privately sponsored refugees, which is triple what the previous government created," he said.
Trudeau said in question period that he'd asked Hussen to look at other options, but Trudeau's spokesman directed questions to Hussen's office, which wasn't immediately available to provide more details.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working with other countries to see where they can relocate anyone who needs urgent relocation, said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative in Canada.
The UNHCR is watching Canada "to see whether they can use their leverage on the global scene so that we ensure the global quota for resettlement is increased," Beuze said in an interview.
Whether or not the current levels are historic, Canada's contribution pales in comparison to that of countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which sit on the Syrian border. From Nov. 4, 2015 until the end of 2016, Canada resettled 40,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Jordan has more than 655,000 refugees, while Lebanon shelters more than a million.
Dench says it's worth the cost to increase programming to accommodate more applications and, therefore, more new Canadians.
"Those are good investments because newcomers to Canada very quickly are contributing," she said.